Saturday, April 28, 2012

Psychology of the promise.

How can one go past Wikipedia for a definition -  A promise is a commitment by someone to do or not do something
My friend promised me she would be there for my birthday.
My friend promised to do as I say.
My stepfather promised not to be cruel to me
The child promises to behave when the relatives visit
The child promises not to tease his sister

After some research on the topic of the ‘promise’ one finds a variety of things written. It has been looked at extensively from a philosophical point of view by people such as Immanual Kant. It is also discussed in terms of religion, contact law, oaths and political promises. Psychologists such as Kohlberg have looked at promises in terms of the development of morality in the child.
One however finds a scarcity of information on the nature of promises, their role and effect on human relationships. It has been noted that breaking a promise can effect relationships because it can erode trust in the relationship. However let’s look at the dynamics of promise making in relationships.
It seems safe to say that promise making is a coercive procedure which highlights the notion that promise making is a bi-directional process. It is this that one rarely sees discussed in the literature. Writings on the concept of the promise invariably focus on the promiser only.

Breaking a promise?

For the purposes of this presentation the following terminology will be used:
Promisee - the person requesting the promise be made
Promiser - the person making the promise
The making of a promise is a two step process. The promisee requests that a promise is made and the promiser agrees to make the promise. As I said before it is the promisee who is rarely examined in discussions on promises. 
If one looks at the psychology of the promisee, what does requesting another person make a promise do to the dynamics of the relationship between the two parties. As mentioned before promise making is a coercive procedure. A promise puts pressure on the promiser to do something that he does not really want to do. If the promiser already wanted to do it there would be no need for a promise to be made in the first place.
Thus we have the first insight into the psychodynamics of promise making. The promisee is endeavoring to coerce the promiser. This immediately puts the promisee into the powerful position in the relationship and the promiser into the child position. The promisee becomes the judge who will assess if the promiser has lived up to their promise.

gun woman

This raises the question - “What’s in it for the promisee to ask for a promise?”. At times it could be because the promisee is making a power play in the relationship by seeking to adopt the powerful position in this way.
Indeed in one sense it does not even matter if the promiser agrees to make the promise. As I said before promise making is a two step process:
  1. The promise is requested by the promisee
  2. The promiser agrees to the request and makes the promise
What happens if the promiser does not agree?
As soon as a request is made the dynamics of the relationship is effected in the way described above even if the promiser does not agree to the promise. If they do not agree what does that say about them, usually something not so good. Thus they are evaluated anyway even if there is no promise agreed to.
As soon as the promisee requests a promise they automatically are falling into the powerful position to some degree. They are putting the promiser into a position where they are under assessment where their performance will be judged. The promisee on the other hand is under no such evaluation. Clearly the dynamics of the relationship changes as soon as a promise is requested.
What happens on the promiser’s side of the relationship. As said before a promise is a coercive process. The promiser is agreeing to do something that at least in part they do not want to do. Nobody likes being coerced so at some level all promisers will resent the process. The Rebellious Child ego state will be activated to some degree in the promiser as soon as the promisee request a promise to be made.
A promise could then be seen to come from the Conforming Child ego state of the promiser as the diagram shows.

Promise transaction

It is quite likely the promiser will feel they are under assessment because they are and thus they will experience themselves to be conforming to some degree. The danger with this is most humans who are in Conforming Child ego state will sooner or later switch to their RC. This will be done overtly or covertly and possibly outside the person’s awareness. One is not wanting a lot of these transactions to enter into their relationship with the other. The Parent to Child transactions as shown in the diagram can quickly undermine the quality of the relationship.
Inherent in all promise transactions is a punishment of some kind. If the promiser breaks the promise the promisee inflicts some kind of punishment on the other. That can be obvious such as a parent smacking a child or it can be more subtle such as with the use of guilt or shame. If the promiser breaks a promise then they may feel guilty or feel they are an untrustworthy person. They know at least that the promisee will think similar about them. This is a dynamic that is introduced into the relationship when a promise is agreed to. Of course one also needs to be careful with this as it can also undermine the quality of the relationship.


  1. I put it in the same basket as the word "share". Not because I think they are similar in meaning but I do think they are bound in with some sort of societal obligation. It is just better to tell someone what you would like/need and take it from there.

  2. Yes linda,

    I agree with your last point. I have never been big on getting promises. Take people as they are and they do what they do